When I started writing plays, the more frustrating criticisms to get were the “coded” ones. The ones that were so obviously about writing Native plays at all, that we Native playwrights were less than our White counterparts, that our topics and styles and skill just didn’t hold up – but were couched as “friendly” comments that they might give anyone else (I.e. a white writer.)
As a writer, you absolutely must get used to constant criticism and rejection. It comes with the job. And much of it is actually really helpful. And some of it is – they just didn’t like my stuff. That’s cool – there’s a lot of stuff I don’t like, too.
But comments that essentially come down to “write like a white person or don’t write at all”?
Not helpful, pretty racist – and more frequent than you might think.
And the most frustrating thing about them wasn’t about the comments themselves. I knew what they were talking about. They knew what they were talking about.
But to other white people when I would relay this obviously race-motivated comment, show them, or even if they were right there, so often the idea that it was racially motivated was doubted, or outright refused. I was reading too much into it, I’m sure they would say the same thing about white plays, etc.
This is the more frustrating reaction to encounter. The unwillingness to believe me – and really all the other people/artist of color saying the same thing – when we say there is a problem with race in this moment.
More recently, some of the commentators finally dropped the codes and started just saying what they meant – “You should stop with these NATIVE plays.”
The reaction by white people – who were unwilling to see it when they said it in code – was swift. But also… SHOCKED. They were so surprised, even though we had been talking about the coded messages literally for years.
And yes, I do mean white people. Because when I relay what was said or written to other artists of color (or they were there,) they get it immediately. I generally don’t have to explain a thing – the comment is understood. The code is not meant to hide the meaning from us, but from other white people.
The frustration is encountering the desire to believe it, and the unwillingness to believe the countless artists of color who are saying “This is a thing.” The frustration is in trying to convince someone that there is a lot of discomfort I am experiencing because they do not want to exit their own sense of comfort. Because acknowledging these things can be uncomfortable. But to ignore it means you are willing for me to be here alone. It means you are willing for this to keep going on.
Maybe this sounds small to you though? Maybe these comments should just be ignored? Maybe I need to just do my art, and ignore what “random” people have to say?
But what if I told you these comments and attitudes are coming from people in positions to make key decisions about not only my art, but about hundreds of other artists of color? What if I told you they were in power in artistic institutions? In corporations and organizations that fund art? On boards and judging panels that decide what happens in my profession?
Because they are.
There are often “bigger” problems of racism and it’s easy to focus on the marching white nationalists as a problem, or “clear” moments of racism no one disputes, or the overtly racist, disgusting remarks that are easy to tag as “exceptions” to the racial outlook in the world.
Those are easy to speak against. You take no risk in standing up to that.
But to the coded language? To the prejudice that is felt, but not spoken as overtly? To the “I’m just talking about quality” color-blind comments?
If you call it out, someone might disagree with you. Many someones might disagree. You may be looked at as causing drama. You may be told you are reading too much into it. You may be accused of racism yourself by judging someone who is white.
Just imagine not only having to make those determinations, but also having to live with the consequences either way. Because letting that prejudice sit there means me and all those other artists of color are missing out on jobs, on funding, on exposure, on experience, on being able to pay some bills.
But calling out that prejudice can mean we’re just one more angry Native/ sensitive artist/ angry black man/ POC playing the race card/ libtard/ stupid SJW/ reverse racist… there are so many to pick from. And I can tell you so many instances I have chosen to protect my livelihood, or the image of who a Native person is, over calling out “small” moments of racism.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day can be a great day of reflection. It can be a day where you look at what he was really saying about the race problem as he experienced it, not just the out-of-context, nice-and-easy quotes. It can be a day to think about what people of color are really saying about how they experience racism today. And also consider, if you are a white person, that they might be holding back from you because they know the risk of saying too much.
But I hope that day of reflection will also lead to action. Will also lead to changing how you respond, or interact. Will lead you into being uncomfortable, if it means someone else is not sitting in that discomfort alone.
It doesn’t mean that believing and speaking up and standing up changes the whole world at the moment. It more often doesn’t even change the person making those prejudicial comments or actions. But I guarantee for the person of color experiencing that “small” bit of oppression at the moment, it changes an awful lot.
Text of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks (Letter from Birmingham Jail) in the image:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.